Redemption Through Literature

Author Daniel A. Olivas interviews Luis J. Rodriguez about his memoir Always Running, the July CBC selection.

luis j rodriguez, always running
Dustin Snipes

I first read Luis J. Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running in 1998, five years after its initial publication. And I remember encountering evocative descriptions of the Los Angeles neighborhoods of his life, including this:

The Hills blistered below a haze of sun and smog. Mothers with wet strands of hair across their foreheads flung wash up to dry on weathered lines. Sweat-drenched men lay on their backs in the gravel of alleys, beneath broken-down cars propped up on cinder blocks. Charrangas and corridos splashed out of open windows.

With such passages, I knew I was reading the words of a poet, who chronicled one man’s story of redemption through literature and the love of certain people in his life. Each chapter reminded me of the lives of some of the young men and women from my neighborhood who were also redeemed or—tragically—never escaped the snares of poverty, abuse, or addiction.

During the past 24 years, I have not only read more of Rodriguez’s books, but have worked with him on events and projects related to Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore, which he and his wife, Trini, cofounded with their brother-in-law Enrique Sanchez over 20 years ago. I am forever astonished at his skill as a writer and his capacity to support and embrace all people who come to him for advice and guidance. I’ve watched him listen intensely to questions from those who attend his book readings or visit Tía Chucha’s and ask him everything from how he finds time to write to how to make a positive impact on those around them. Rodriguez’s responses are thoughtful, kind, practical, and forged from personal battles with poverty, addiction, and a society that often turned its back on him and his community. He frequently begins his responses with a soft, “I hear you.” And I have no doubt he means it.

This interview was conducted by email and has been lightly edited.

Over the years, you’ve heard from readers who were deeply touched—and even saved—by Always Running, the July CBC pick. Is there a story of your book’s effect on a life that you find particularly moving?
There are too many stories to relate. I did poetry readings, talks, and healing circles, as well as teaching creative writing, in prisons, jails, and juvenile lockups for 40 years. Many incarcerated men, women, and youth would come to my events or classes and say that Always Running awakened them to their own callings and life paths. I’ve received hundreds of letters from teachers and youth, including from those who wanted to commit suicide. Many in gangs decided to turn their lives around. This book didn’t just affect Chicanos or even gang members. I’ve had Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, other Latinos, and whites say the book helped them understand troubled youth better, as well as Chicanos and barrio life. They obtained a deeper clarity not only on why people join gangs or abuse drugs, but also on how someone can go from trouble to triumph, trauma to transformation.

On the other hand, Always Running has often made it onto the American Library Association’s list of the most-banned and -challenged books in the United States. Since your memoir can be read as a story of redemption and human resilience, why do you think some find it so dangerous that it should be banned?
Most of this censorship is against “reality” in classrooms or libraries. Those who want to ban books underestimate readers. Too many school administrators, parents, and school boards push fabricated, idealized narratives in history and literature that have little or nothing to do with current realities of home, streets, and culture. They cover up the intrinsic race, class, gender, and ethnic divisions of our country. The growing number of gun incidents, drug deaths, and youth suicides proves to me that books like these are needed more than ever. I hope the time comes when a book like Always Running becomes obsolete, when the social, familial, and personal conditions that engender desperation, hate, and fear finally end.

Since the publication of Always Running, we still see tremendous challenges for Los Angeles and many communities that you describe being present 30 years ago. Has there been any progress? What are the most intractable problems we still face?
Gang participation and violence was bad in the 1960s and 1970s—I know; I was involved during that time. But it exploded from the 1980s till the early 2000s. My oldest son, Ramiro, for whom I wrote Always Running, got active in gangs and did his prison time during that period—he’s now free and doing well. The crack era started in the early 1980s, as did the greatest proliferation of guns and other drugs, now including crystal meth and fentanyl, this country has ever known. Still, crime and violence rates fell when there was rehabilitation programming behind bars and gang prevention and intervention in the streets. I worked on several such initiatives, including Chicago’s Increase the Peace network and Los Angeles’s Effective Community-Based Gang Intervention. But funds for these were never great, and now it’s practically nonexistent.

Homicides and other crimes have risen since the pandemic. We need public safety, but we need to imagine other ways to go than police and prisons. Not scared straight, but cared straight. This includes getting to the root of poverty, as well as expanding arts and healing, mental and drug treatment, jobs, and a livable income. We must reimagine and rebuild all our communities, providing shared well-being for all. To paraphrase Clarence Darrow, you want to stop crime, you must give people a chance to live.•

Join us July 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Rodriguez will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Rubén Martínez to discuss Always Running. Visit the Alta Clubhouse to let fellow California Book Club members know your thoughts on Rodriguez’s memoir.

Daniel A Olivas is a lawyer, a playwright, and the author of 10 books, including How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories.
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